Demand from students for online courses at Open Universities Australia could soon outstrip the supply from current providers.
The OUA, the Australian equivalent of the UK's Open University, is a company owned by seven universities and is the country's fastest growing online higher education service.
It began in 1991 as a television-based learning system, when it was called Open Learning Australia. Over the past 15 years, more than 100,000 students have taken one or more units, many without qualifying for university entry, making the scheme unique in Australian higher education.
In 2004, the programme changed its name and, last year, the federal Government amended its rules to allow students to borrow to cover the cost of courses. Since then, the number taking web-based and distance education units has doubled to more than 20,000 full-time-equivalent students a year.
But the 14 institutions providing the courses are finding it difficult to keep up with demand and the OUA is seeking other universities willing to help.
"Four or five years ago, our numbers were significantly lower. Universities saw us as marginal," said Stuart Hamilton, OUA chief executive. "Their original notion was not just opening up access to Australians who may have been unable to gain a place at a conventional university but also dealing with their surplus capacity. Now, they don't have that excess."
Mr Hamilton said that in 1999 undergraduate registrations were about 15,000, while this year the figure was 43,000 (20,000 full-time equivalent students). "Providers are now saying they can't take more students, so we have to look for other suppliers and a different way of dealing with constraints," he said. The latter includes providing more cost-effective tutorial support for students, such as online discussion forums.
Mr Hamilton said the Government's decision to give OUA students access to its loan scheme had boosted postgraduate numbers. These doubled last year to nearly 700 and doubled again in 2006. The growth in undergraduate and postgraduate enrolment has had a powerful impact on OUA finances: last year, it had a surplus of A$1.8 million (£700,000) compared with a A$634,000 deficit the previous year.
The company is also investigating if it should tap into the overseas market. Although foreign students comprise 5 per cent of enrolments, Mr Hamilton said the OUA had set up a pilot to market online courses in India, where 200 students were now enrolled.